It seems like I’ve been chasing the answer to the question “Who am I?” for my whole life and still haven’t quite found it. I think for everyone, the search for identity is a common question. Almost 3 years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a scholarship application, and “Who Am I?” was the only prompt. This seemingly simple question really threw me off and I thought about it for weeks. Last minute, I ended up writing a pretty basic answer that was good enough to win the scholarship, but far from good enough to satisfy my own wonder and need for identity. I think that might be why part of me is jealous of Tevye’s daughters in Fiddler on the Roof.
Jewish, female, and a part of a family. These three qualities defined, almost in entirety, who Tevye’s daughters were with little else left for self exploration. Ever since the beginning of their lives they knew who they were… or at least who they were supposed to be. Jewish, gendered, and a part of a family. Although it was restricting, it provided them with a set identity and secure sense of belonging.
Tevye’s daughters first and foremost receive their sense of identity as a member of the Jewish community. When Tevye first mentions the non-jewish people in their village, he calls them the “others.” with a tone in his voice that makes it very clear how he feels about them. In a world where the Jewish people are made outcasts, the people of Anatevka have created their own community of belonging. Within their community, the mold is exactly what they are; all they have to do is follow the path that is laid out for them.
The people of Anatevka find this path first in the Torah and its law. The Torah is like a “how to” for their life, full of rules and standards for them to follow. If anything in the Torah isn’t clear all they have to do is ask the Rabbi, and he will tell them what to do. At the beginning of the show, a young man comes to the Rabbi and says he has a question. Instantly everyone around them becomes quiet or is shushed. This clearly shows from the beginning that everyone has high respect for the Rabbi and his words. The young men are eager to follow him and learn. This is also seen in the wedding scene, when the wedding guests argue if it is wrong or not for men and women to dance together. The same effect happens, the people grow quiet and move closer, they lean in to see and hear what he will have to say with their eyes open wide. What the Rabbi says goes! When he says that dancing is not forbidden, the whole room eventually begins to dance.
Outside the word of the Torah, the cultural traditions of the Jewish religion also help define their path and who they are. Before the show opening song Tevye states, “because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is… and what God expects them to do.” It’s the simple things from how they dress–always wearing a prayer shawl and keeping their heads covered–to their behaviors. Some of these behaviors include their observance of the sabbath, their family roles, and their relationships with one another.
The Jewish community in Anatevka also finds a sense of who they are through the gender roles expected of them in their society. This is seen through the portrayal of the men and women in the working environment. There are countless scenes of the men hard at work, and their movements in their jobs are sharp and aggressive. They are shown pulling waggons, chopping wood, smashing metal, and butchering meat (with their knives choreographed way higher in the air than I believe would be necessary). The women, in contrast, are shown doing jobs that are clean and gentle. We see them kneading dough (which arguably should be quite aggressive, but somehow isn’t), sliding food in and out of the oven at the perfect time, scrubbing children, ironing clothes, and folding the laundry. Showing how both genders do their work reflects their roles in the home and society, men as the big and strong authority figure, and women as the soft spoken, delicate keeper of the house.
We also learn a lot about the gender roles and expectations of the people of Anatevka from their portrayal of movement in the Wedding Dance. The females movements are gentle, and they quickly fall in line. We see their chests and chins held high during their simple calm movements, with sweet smiles always on their face. They float from movement to movement like they float from task to task – quickly and quietly, sweetly and delicately. We see all of this contrasted with the movements of the men on the other side of the rope. Their movements are much less controlled – even sloppier in a way. Their arms flail out of choreography, their claps are much sharper and more aggressive. They also have bottles of alcohol as a key component of their choreography, which the women do not have. Men in Anatevka have much more freedom and say in what they do, while the women’s role is to quietly obey and be the prized possession of the men, little to no attention drawn to them. The contrast between male and female dancing in this scene show that the lives and expectations were different, but very clear. Each person is called to fit in on their side of the rope, with the small square they are allowed to dance in almost like the small space for freedom of individuality they are allowed to explore.
Finally, they find identity and belonging through their family. Family is extremely important to the people in Anatevka. There is no divorce, and a part from extreme circumstances, families rarely separate. We see this clearly in the relationship between Tevye’s daughters. The sister’s close bond is clear in their first song “Matchmaker.” We see them helping each other complete their chores and get ready for dinner. The choreography so well depicts each girl knowing exactly the move her sister is going to make next, and either assisting her or letting her shine. They sing and banter together, knowing exactly what will take the funniest but still playful jab at their sister, but not going too far as to hurt her (as someone with a sister, I know that this is a perfect art).
We see this love and bond even further during the dance at the wedding. When the three oldest sisters dance together, their love for each other shines through. They each take turns looking at each other, with a great affection in their eyes and approval in their soft nods. They also show how fond they are of each other when Tzeitel gives each of her younger sisters a soft kiss on the cheek when they break a part. This shows that even though she is getting married, their sisterhood will never go away. They will be there for each other through thick and thin. They prove this at the end of the show when Chava comes back to say goodbye to her family after doing the unthinkable: marrying a Christain. Regardless of her status with the community, Tzeitel runs to greet her with a hug as soon as she sees her, showing that after even the worst, nothing between them could ever change; they will always be sisters.
In Anatevka, you could be known and belong if you followed the mold, and a small part of me wonders why anyone would want to break that. It sometimes seems like being told who you are might be easier than trying to figure it out for yourself. As Tevye says, “without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” So… who am I? What are my traditions, identity, and belonging? I still don’t know, but maybe “shaky” isn’t a bad thing. Shaky pushes us forward, stability just holds us back from being who we truly are meant to become.